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Potential Impact Of Bengals' Early Free-Agent Deals Wide-Ranging 

Baltimore Ravens safety Geno Stone (26) gestures after an incomplete pass during the second half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)
Baltimore Ravens safety Geno Stone (26) gestures after an incomplete pass during the second half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)

The deals the Bengals reportedly struck in the first two days of free agency may have a massive impact on how they'll play the game in 2024.

The reported agreement Ravens safety Geno Stone appears to have reconfigured their secondary. The expected arrival of Colts running back Zack Moss looks to usher in a more collaborative approach in the backfield. With the reported Mike Gesicki deal, Bengals head coach and play-caller Zac Taylor has the most prolific NFL pass-catching tight end in his six seasons and gives him the option of playing more multiple tight end sets.

At dinnertime Tuesday as the start of the NFL year at 4 p.m. Wednesday loomed, Bengals negotiators were still working the phones talking to agents of their own free agents, as well as others.

With a safety, running back, and tight end in the fold, defensive tackle is next on what is perceived to be the offseason wish list. That didn't mean cornerbacks and offensive tackles were off the board (are they ever?) in what they view as an early stage of their roster building for the upcoming season.

The Bengals made a dent in their 17-man free agent class Monday when they locked up their best blocking and most seasoned tight end for three years in six-year vet Drew Sample. That came on a day they agreed on a one-year deal for core special teamer/linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither, and back-up running back Trayveon Williams. They signed back-up tackle-guard Cody Ford on Saturday.

And there are others they'd like to keep, such as guys they endorsed last month in Indianapolis at the NFL scouting combine: Starting nose tackle and captain D.J. Reader, resourceful backup wide receiver Trenton Irwin, and another core special teamer in backup linebacker Markus Bailey.

The reported courting and agreements of the three new Bengals epitomize their approach to free agency. Value deals with either ascending young players or proven players looking to revive their careers.

According to reports, the 24-year-old Stone, the AFC interceptions leader in his first year as a regular starter, agreed to $14 million over two years. The 26-year-old Moss, coming off a career-high 183 carries and 794 yards in his fourth season, reportedly agreed for $8 million over two years. Gesicki, 28, a six-year vet and former franchise free agent with a 73-catch season, reportedly agreed on $3.5 million for one season.

They may be modest deals, but they attacked exactly what the Bengals saw as needs. In Indy, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo talked about how a veteran safety could improve communication to shore up a defense that was among the league leaders in allowing explosive plays. In Stone they have a player who has a rep at being able to line up defenders before the snap.

"That's always a conversation that is ongoing. As we know, that's something that when things can go sideways a little bit it usually starts back there with communication," Anarumo said. "The guys that have done it and have experienced it can always add to that. There's a fine line with how it all fits. You start talking about veteran safeties and, oh by the way, the third safety has to play a lot of special teams. It's a balancing act but everything is open and on the table right now."

And that's where it seems to be now as the Bengals mull moving Dax Hill out of what would be Stone's spot opposite Jordan Battle. One thing is clear. They want Hill, their 2022 first-rounder, on the field somewhere, and that could be as a hybrid cornerback/safety that would shift scheme for Anarumo.

"Dax can play corner. Dax can play nickel. Dax can play free safety and Dax can play strong safety," said director of player personnel Duke Tobin last month. "Finding the best fit will be up to our defensive coaching staff and Zac and determine, 'Where can this guy help us the most win football games?' He can do an awful lot and we're happy to have him."

Tobin and the Bengals also have a high ceiling for last year's fifth-rounder, running back Chase Brown. They see him as the home-run hitter they've lacked in the backfield (note last year's 54-yard-catch-and-run touchdown) and they wanted to give him more than the 44 carries he got in 2023.

With another back like Moss who is used to sharing carries (with the Colts it was Jonathan Taylor, with the Bills it was Devin Singletary), the Bengals seem to be moving away from the bell cow model.

"I don't think he got much opportunity last year," Taylor said of Chase Brown last month. "Right before we were about to give him a big role, he pulled his hamstring in practice and missed four … weeks. Then the second he came back, we integrated him right back in there and he did some good things for us, so I certainly think a whole season's worth of that is going to be exciting to watch.

"You talk about a consistent approach, Chase Brown has done that. You see him in there every day doing extra stuff. He'll prepare himself for the opportunities that he can get and I'm really excited to watch what Chase's career is going to be like for us."

In his first year as offensive coordinator, old quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher knows what a solid pass-catching tight end means. With slot receiver Tyler Boyd not expected to return, there's a spot open on the team that has used the most three-receiver sets in the league the last couple of years. About 80% of the time in what is known as "11." Three receivers, one back, one tight end.

But they've never had a guy with the production of Gesicki at tight end.

"We're going to be player-centric," Pitcher said at the combine. "We've lined up in a lot of '11' personnel. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find over the course of the time Zac's been here, a team that's got three better receivers than we've had. Put your best players on the field. That doesn't mean if we were to acquire a talented tight end, could we play more '12' (double tight ends?) Absolutely, we could play more '12'.

"We're going to put our best guys out there. We're going to see what matchups we can exploit and we're going to do that on a week-to-week basis. So I like playing 11, I believe in it. I think there's some value in really majoring in a personnel group, but that doesn't mean we can't adjust off of that and modify what we do based on who we have."

As they head into the new year, it seems they've got three new guys that can help them adjust.

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